A few days ago in northern Aleppo, 14-year-old Mohammad Qataa was shot dead by armed fighters who accused him of blasphemy. The Free Syria Army denied any connection to the savage act, calling it an act of ‘terrorism’ committed by rebels linked to al-Qaeda.
This is not the first time that a Syrian civilian has been accused of insulting Islam. On March 21 the prominent Sufi scholar Sheikh Muhammad al-Bouti was assassinated inside a mosque in Damascus because of his views about the violence in Syria. The FSA has denied these attacks and so has the Assad regime.
So who are these rebels shooting people and chopping off heads in the name of Islam? Some could be the very individuals that many in the west would like to arm. Although William Hague promises that weapons will be sent to moderate opposition forces, what criteria will Western intelligence use to make differentiations? Will it be the length of a man’s beard, or the number of prayers a person says each day?
As a nation, Syria was always known to wear Islam lightly. This is mainly due to the efforts of former president Hafez Assad to undermine the ideology of the Muslim brotherhood by fostering a form of moderate government-sanctioned Islam. However the vulnerability of Syria’s borders and the growth of jihadism in the wider region have created the perfect opportunity for foreign fighters to come and join Islamic groups in Syria. There are several FSA brigades that are overwhelmingly Islamist. The Supreme Military Council is made of Islamist groups, such as Al Farouq Brigade, Syria’s Martyr’s brigade and the Al-Tawhid Brigade. The trouble is that it is difficult to know what brand of Islam defines the FSA, andwhether it is liberal or conservative?
Brigadier General Salim Idris describes the FSA as an army which ‘doesn’t operate like a traditional fighting force’, but is made of many small ‘battalions and brigades that have come together to fight the Assad’s regime’. The FSA will have control over any arms that the west is prepared to offer. Unfortunately arms can easily pass between groups who claim to oppose Assad.
Then there is the question of rebel loyalty. One day a fighter may claim to stand with a so-called ‘reasonable’ faction, and tomorrow they could declare their allegiance to al-Qaeda. With the absence of clear political plans for a post-Assad Syria, arming rebel factions could simply fuel a proxy war instead of empowering those who are calling for a civil democratic state.
The West is missing the point that further militarisation of the conflict will only lead to an arms race between the regime and rebels, and thus incur more violence, more deaths and more refugees. Haven’t we learned from what happened in Iraq? Libya? Afghanistan? The Middle East is littered with the remnants of failed military interventions, which at first were based on sound reason and logic. Now Syria may fall victim to the axiom that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
The West must focus on draining off the sources of arms that are going to Assad and also to the Jihadists. It should stress diplomacy and tough negotiations. It should also initiate strategies to combat the rise of jihad tourism to Syria, which the Home Office has warned is attracting hundreds of Europeans to join groups affiliated with al-Qaeda. In addition, there needs to be additional pressure imposed on Hezbollah and its supporters.
There is no magic wand to end this conflict, but arming the rebels will not bring about a resumption of hostilities and the west will be forced to live with this miscalculation for the decades to come.
SPECTATOR DEBATE: IS IT TIME TO INTERVENE IN SYRIA?
Dr Halla Diyab will be speaking at the next Spectator Debate: ‘Assad is a war criminal. The West must intervene in Syria’ on 24 June. Click here to book tickets.
Dr Halla Diyab is an award-winning screenwriter, film maker and broadcaster. Educated in the UK, she has worked throughout the Middle East and is the founder of the UK-based company Liberty media Productions ltd. She is currently working on a book entitled, ‘This is Syria’. Follow her on twitter @DrHallaDiyab